Finding Humanity in the Humidity: An Art Trip to Texas

by Corinna Kirsch on July 18, 2014 Reviews

Trenton Doyle Hancock's Torpedo Boy stealing tofu from the alien vegans. On view at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston.

Trenton Doyle Hancock’s Torpedo Boy stealing tofu from the alien vegans. On view at the Museum of Contemporary Art Houston.

There’s a type of summertime heat in the Gulf states that will turn even the hardiest of souls into a single ball of sweat. Not even air conditioning cannot save you. Summer’s really not the best season for art, and the galleries tend to know that; they slow down just like the rest of their sticky city-dwellers. And yet, a scant few do get out, and try to see art though most of the galleries have gone on vacation. This weekend I was one of the few in Houston who ignored the heat advisory to stay indoors, heading out to The Brandon and the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston.

It was difficult to tell if there was an exhibition taking place at The Brandon, an art gallery formerly home to Domy Books, and before that Mixture Gallery, where Lower East Side dealer Lisa Cooley was formerly on staff. From what I know, they’re still one of the more exciting galleries in Houston. But I called The Brandon to ask about their schedule; the number listed on the website connected me with an elevator operator at a hospital. I guess you’re just supposed to be in the know in some places, even if that place happens to be the fourth largest city in the States.

Without a clue of whether there’d be an exhibition going on, I walked into The Brandon; the door was open and they had just finished installing a show about quail rigs by the photographer A. Loky. The gallery attendant was friendly enough to let me in and hang out amid the dry wall scattered along the floor and the gallery’s unofficial mascot, a roly-poly female Bulldog named Boo.

One of my favorite quail rigs by A. Loky. It has dogs in it.

One of my preferred quail rigs by A. Loky. It has a dog in it. Courtesy the artist.

Texas Quail Rigs is fairly self-explanatory series: these are documentary-style photos of the tricked-out trucks driven by hunters in hot pursuit of that small flying foul. Quail hunting happens to be a popular Texas pastime for well-to-do cowboys and oil barons; that’s why quail eggs are fairly common to any Whole Foods or high-end restaurant here. I’ve never known anyone who’s gone out on a hunt, so I was surprised to see just how strange these vehicles are with roofs torn off of trucks, gun racks installed on the doors, and special seating areas for dogs. These vehicles look ready for war, all in the name of chasing down some very small birds.

On face value, I can’t say I’m surprised that these killing machines came out of Texas—and that’s the photographs’ biggest fault. They don’t add anything to the kill-‘em-all stereotype of Texans, and they certainly don’t provide any mystery, subtlety, or a human side to these machines. That’s very much at odds with what residents know about Texas, which is home to a broad mix of conservative and liberal values and lifestyles. And this corner of Westheimer and Dunlavy in the Montrose neighborhood where The Brandon is located is home to more than just kickers; it’s known as a haven for the city’s gay population. The Brandon shares a backyard patio with Brasil, a coffee shop where Wes Anderson was rumored to write drafts for screenplays like Rushmore and Bottle Rocket; across the street, Austrian pastry chef Roy Shvartzapel just opened up Common Bond, a tavern-bakery where the waitstaff wears fedoras.

Maybe this exhibition was just a fluke for the gallery and I’ll have more to look forward to next time.

Trenton Doyle Hancock, "Self-Portrait With Tongue," 2010. Courtesy the artist and James Cohan Gallery.

Trenton Doyle Hancock, “Self-Portrait With Tongue,” 2010. Courtesy the artist and James Cohan Gallery.

A five-minute drive away—just enough time for sunblock to melt off my face—the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston (CAMH) showed its Texan-ness without playing off any straightforward stereotypes. Perhaps that’s why the show seemed to have a large appeal with Houstonians: In fact, my friend’s husband, a bartender who’s not so much into art as he is music, recommended that I go check out the CAMH’s show of Houston-based artist Trenton Doyle Hancock’s Skin and Bones, 20 Years of Drawing. It’s easy to see why he’d say that. Hancock’s obsessively inked, comic-style illustrations might appeal to a non-art crowd, but only on the surface; the over 200-plus works in the show are tinged with vulgar, queer, and depressing views on race, and the problems of being an outsider of any sort.

Hancock’s “Torpedo Boy,” an African-American superhero in tightie-whitie underwear looks uncomfortable in his own body, with his squid-like arms stealing mounds of tofu away from the evil, alien-like vegans. It’s not so much skill with which Torpedo Boy completes his task as sheer stumbling. In another drawing, a self-portrait of sorts, an obese version of the artist appears stuck in a cavernous hell, running endlessly on a treadmill with the constant reminder of “FAT” flashing atop the headboard. These characters are full of self-doubt, and their peculiar stories are sometimes hard to follow; but that desire to continually question and rework your ideas, that’s prime fuel for a prolific art practice.“He had a hunger that was telling him to draw it,” Hancock had painted atop the gallery walls, and after seeing hundreds of his works, you just knew that message was meant for the artist himself.

I felt that hunger too—in my case it compelled me to look at art in 100-degree-plus weather. That act reminded me that the one question Hancock’s work doesn’t answer is why that hunger exists for him. Is it because of self-doubt, obsession, or a desire to constantly improve as an artist? It’s hard to say, though I’d have preferred more of a position from Hancock; any opinion at all is better than being driven by blind faith.

With special thanks to my “chauffeur” who took me around the city; sorry, I just don’t have a license.

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